Michael Murphy commands the screen in his portrayal of a lonely, aging priest living in a waning parish on the Canadian edge of Niagara Falls.

It is spring in Ontario, but the cold, dull, gray winter lingers as Murphy’s character, Father Sam, goes about his daily work, visiting sick people in nursing homes, counseling couples who want to marry in the Roman Catholic church and doing mundane chores such as answering mail.

A letter comes from a man who, many years ago, at 14, spent the night in a cabin with Father Sam; and the letter asks if something happened that night between them, as he was not sure.

Thus begins not only the dark story, but also Father Sam’s fall from grace.

Murphy, a seasoned, intelligent actor, mesmerizes in his ability to reflect loneliness, pain, and conflict with a mere facial expression, a subtle wince, a stare.

“I was so inside that part,” Murphy, 77, said this week. “It was so interesting to me. So much happened, through osmosis. I felt like I knew what I was doing. I sort of owned the part in some way.”


Murphy was talking Tuesday about his new movie, “Fall,” which will have its U.S. premiere Thursday, July 16, at the Waterville Opera House, where he will receive the 2015 Mid-Life Achievement Award at the Maine International Film Festival. The film netted Murphy a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Actor for the 2014 film. It also was nominated for best picture, cinematography and set design.

The annual festival in Waterville, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday, July 19, draws thousands of film enthusiasts from all over the world to the Opera House and Railroad Square Cinema to view more than 100 independent American and foreign films.

Actors, directors, writers and producers share their works with audiences at various venues, including public receptions and question-and-answer sessions before and after film screenings.

Murphy, who has appeared in more than 100 films and television productions, joins Glenn Close, Ed Harris, Sissy Spacek, John Turturro, Peter Fonda, Keith Carradine, Jonathan Demme, Terrence Malick, Malcolm McDowell, Lili Taylor and others who in past years have received the award. The accolade is given to someone who has made significant contributions to the world of independent film.

While Murphy’s vast body of work over a 53-year career includes some big-budget Hollywood films, he also has appeared in independent films including “Manhattan,” “The Front,” and “Away From Her,” all of which will be shown at this year’s film festival.

Having worked under directors including Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone and Tim Burton over his long career, Murphy has a perspective few others in the industry have, according to Ken Eisen, a festival founder and programmer. Eisen calls Murphy’s performance in “Fall” brilliant.


“It’s really a remarkable film — a very subdued, quiet, thoughtful, honest film,” Eisen said. “His work in it is fantastic. It’s quite an astonishing lead role, and we’re very excited about being the U.S. premiere.”

Murphy, who divides his time between homes in New York and Cape Elizabeth, has attended the festival before and was a special guest in 2013 along with Altman’s widow, Kathryn, for a festival highlight honoring Robert Altman’s work. Murphy also came to support his friend, Carradine, who was awarded the festival achievement award that year.

Eisen said the festival is happy to be honoring Murphy this year.

“I really do admire him in so many ways as an actor,” Eisen said. “He is just a great guy, and that is something I’ve come to appreciate more and more.”


Murphy, who has dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship, spent six weeks in Ontario filming “Fall,” written and directed by Terrance Odette. The script was written specifically for Murphy, who helped hone Father Sam’s character, drawing from his own experiences working with priests as an altar boy and Catholic school student for 12 years. He recites Latin in the film as fluently as if he were a priest himself.


“It came back quickly,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s ex-wife, Canadian actress Wendy Crewson, plays his sister in the film, which portrays a priest who has adjusted to loneliness.

“He’s a guy who is nearing the end of the road,” Murphy says. “The church is near the end of the road in many ways. He’s all alone in that parish. The city is nearing the end. The whole thing is sort of spiraling down the drain, in a way.”

Murphy hopes audiences will come to see the film, set in the shadow of the raging falls.

“I think it’s the kind of film that should be shown at festivals like this,” he said.

As when he worked with Allen and Altman, Murphy was able to control much of what his character says and does in “Fall.” It’s the kind of acting that he enjoys, and which produces his best work.


In “Manhattan,” Murphy, who had worked with Woody Allen in “The Front,” plays Allen’s best friend, a married man having an affair with a character played by Diane Keaton. Murphy was able to introduce and inject lines not written into the script if they seemed appropriate, as was the case in working with Altman.

“Both these guys hired you and let you do your work,” Murphy said. “Neither was a micro-manager — not in the least. They figured you could do it. Bob (Altman), particularly, but both of them liked to be surprised. He just liked that kind of immediate behavior. Woody was a bit more structured.”

Murphy and Allen became good friends while filming “The Front.”

“By the time we got to ‘Manhattan,’ it was like having dinner with your friends. “It was very low-key. We had a good time.”

Murphy has good memories of working with Allen.

“We still stroll through the parks like a couple old guys once in a while,” he said. “We’ll go to a basketball game.”



Acting was not Murphy’s first vocation, though he grew up in Los Angeles, where many kids figured they would work in the movie industry in some capacity. Murphy was around actors all the time and it was nothing to look over and see Gary Cooper sitting next to you, he said.

“It was fairly common. I didn’t think much about it,” he said. “I knew a lot of kid actors, and acting was very doable. Kids would say, ‘I’ll be an actor or a fireman.'”

Murphy was born in 1938 at Hollywood Hospital. His mother was a teacher; his father, a salesman. When he was in high school, they moved to Arizona, where his parents bought season tickets to a small theater in Phoenix.

“They went there every Wednesday night to see plays. I got really enamored of the theater. Most of the actors came from Hollywood — Shelley Winters and others. Then I got into the theater department at the state university, in Tucson.”

After college, he taught high school English and drama for a while, then headed to New York City.


“I was dying to get to New York. It seemed very romantic, and the Actor’s Studio was going full blast. I worked at Lord & Taylor, trying to get by. Quite a few actors were working in stores in those days.”

But having nothing to compare it to, Murphy became disappointed in the struggle it took to launch into theater in the big city.

“I wound up being a little bit disillusioned by the theater there,” he said. “People were working in very — what seemed to be unprofessional venues — funky little places. I came back to L.A. I knew it well. It wasn’t 20 minutes when I started to work. I got very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.”

He landed a part in an Elvis Presley movie — a terrible one, but Presley was a good guy, he said.

“I did a Bob Aldrich movie with Kim Novak — old Hollywood stuff. He was a very, very independent-minded guy. He had a wonderful career.”

Movies such as “Easy Rider,” with Peter Fonda started cropping up — maverick movies that large studios for a while didn’t know what to do with, according to Murphy. So “filmmakers” started making movies, and those wanting a part would deal with just one person, and if he liked you, you were in.


“If Altman wanted you in a movie, there wasn’t any more discussion. You didn’t have to deal with studios,” Murphy said.

Many of the filmmakers were World War II veterans, and they weren’t worried about what Jack Warner had to say, he recalled.

“They just went in and made movies they wanted to make. It was a wonderful time.”

After that, Murphy headed back to New York, where he made more movies. He has been in many movies, including “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Batman Returns,” “Salvador,” “Magnolia,” “M.A.S.H.” and “Nashville”; and he has narrated several “American Experience” television series documentaries and recently completed working on a television series, “Rogue.”


Murphy started coming to Maine in the summers about 35 years ago, when his sister and brother-in-law owned an inn in Kennebunkport.


He bought a barn near the inn and had fun converting it into a house and inviting people passing through to stop and visit. Eventually his sister and brother-in-law moved to Cape Elizabeth and he followed suit.

He loves his home in Maine, and while New York is a fun place to be, he finds solace here.

“I get up here and — I can’t get up here fast enough,” he said. “It takes the pressure off.”

As to what comes next for film roles, he doesn’t stress about it.

“At this point, it all kind of comes along and I get excited about something or it just jumps off the page,” he said. “I don’t sit here and think, ‘Oh, I wish I had done Hamlet.’

“I’m quite relaxed about it all. I’ve written a screenplay that I may do in Canada. I keep my hand in a lot of stuff.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247


Twitter: @AmyCalder17

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: